James Neal said his first NHL season playing for a team in Canada was a lot to handle, maybe more than he expected, and he's motivated to return to form this season with the Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers acquired the 31-year-old forward from the Calgary Flames in a trade for forward Milan Lucic and a conditional third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft on Friday.
"It's hard," Neal, a Whitby, Ontario, native, said Saturday. "For me, having played in the League [10 seasons] and then going to a Canadian market, you feel the pressure and you feel the fans. Everyone's passionate about their team and about winning. Being a professional athlete and wanting to win, it can wear on you because you want to be the best you can be, you want to help your team."
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After signing a five-year, $28.75 million contract with the Flames as a free agent on July 2, 2018, Neal had 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 63 games. It was the only time in his NHL career with the Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, Vegas Golden Knights and Flames that he didn't score at least 21 goals in a season.
"It was a tough year, but I think it makes you reevaluate how you go about things," Neal said. "You have to look at yourself in the mirror and put the onus on yourself to be better. I've got back to training and to the work and ... I'm excited for what Edmonton has to bring."
Video: AUDIO | James Neal Interview 07.20.19
Neal played in the Stanley Cup Final in the two previous seasons before joining the Flames. The Predators lost to the Penguins in six games in the 2017 Final, and the Golden Knights lost in five games to the Washington Capitals in 2018.
"I don't want to make excuses, but I think going to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back years, laying it out on the line trying to win the Cup every single year, that wears on you," Neal said. "You don't have the same time to train and refocus and help your body recoup. I was going right into another season and I don't think mentally I was refocused and ready to go. That obviously has an effect on you, and for me now, this summer, I've had time to recharge and regroup and train and get ready for another season."
Neal, who has 514 points (270 goals, 244 assists) in 766 NHL games, said he found out about the trade when he arrived in Nashville on Friday. He is there to attend former teammate Roman Josi's wedding.
"I think I was on the only fight to Nashville without Wi-Fi," Neal said. "When I landed I went from a Calgary Flame to an Edmonton Oiler. It's kind of funny when your phone starts blowing up. But I've been traded a few times, so you know the way to go through it."
Neal said he has had a solid offseason under the guidance of longtime friend Gary Roberts, who played 1,224 NHL games, including his first 585 for Calgary (1986-96). Roberts trains numerous top players, including Oilers center Connor McDavid, Neal's captain in Edmonton.
Video: Oilers trade Milan Lucic to the Flames for James Neal
Neal said the 53-year-old is like a second father to him and has provided exceptional guidance for many years. Neal was 14 when he met Roberts.
"If you just saw the way he lives his life every day and the way he trains, he makes you a better person," Neal said. "We've had a great summer. Connor is there every day and I've gotten to see him and he's my teammate now. He's been a lot of fun to work with."
The Oilers have been making dramatic moves since finishing 11 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. After missing the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 seasons, Edmonton hired Ken Holland as general manager May 7 and Dave Tippett as coach May 28.
When Neal was a rookie in 2008-09, he played for Tippett in Dallas and scored 37 points (24 goals, 13 assists) in 77 games.
"He wants to win, he's ultra-competitive, and I couldn't be more happy or excited to be back playing for a guy like that," Neal said. "I think he's a perfect fit for the way the Oilers are trending. I talked to him yesterday. It's a great thing."
Neal also said he's sensing a strong sense of purpose from the Oilers.
"I think we'll surprise a lot of people this year," he said. "I think we're going to be a motivated group."